Dreams and Films

It is fairly common to compare films and dreams because of the way we can jump unquestioningly from one illogical event to another in a dream and feel it makes perfect sense no matter how incongruous. Similarly, shifting between scenes in films frequently involves violent, unmotivated juxtapositions which, because of the story tying them together, seem perfectly logical.

While there are films (such as Buñuel/Dali’s Un Chien Andalou) that explicitly exploit this similarity, the more telling comparison may be to those narrative films that seem to work snugly as mainstream storytelling, but which upon reflection can be recognized as a jumble of irrational ruptures. Alfred Hitchcock is often discussed in this manner, and to the extent that his films are endlessly cited as central to the narrative film model, the similarity between dreams and movies is indeed striking.

Striking, but not perfect. For if films are “just like” dreams, why should it be that explicit attempts to mimic oneiric form are so often dismissed as “weird” or “experimental?” That they do not conform to standard narrative expectation should not be sufficient reason, for if a dream film exploits the same unconscious desires as standard narrative, its form alone should presumably compel. Conversely, other than nightmares, few things in narrative films are more flat-footed and distant than dream sequences (including the famous Hitchcock/Dali dream sequence in Spellbound). Sunnier fantasies are rendered with softly focused, pastel colored, over-exposed banality as if any dream that is not horrific has to be a greeting card.

I know no one, including people sympathetic to experimental cinema, who would claim that dream films engage the viewer as tenaciously as narratives. Films imitating the form of a dream, or which were “inspired” by one inevitably are explained, discussed, interpreted, in short, rationalized. They do not excite spontaneous emotional response, aside from isolated moments (such as the infamous slitting of an eyeball in Chien which arguably is more a visceral than an emotional reaction). We do not experience such films with anything like the intense involvement inspired by the average narrative film. Indeed, the absence of an obvious organizing principle is likelier to inspire detached indifference. Yet surely one of the fascinations of dreams is their ability to involve us totally even if we can make neither head nor tail of them in the morning.

Dreams compel the dreamer in a sweating, hot-house, often suffocating world closed to outsiders, meaningful only for him or her, while films, for all their incongruities, have to move others with a form accessible to all. If my experience after finishing a film that uses both narrative and dream logic is any guide, the key to creating compelling oneiric form is to exploit the irrationality of linear rationality. The calm assurance of rational explication enables a powerful emotional involvement that smothers any recognition of just how irrational and unlike life a carefully constructed linear experience is.